Review: Christine Ebersole

This is the very pinnacle of cabaret. I never miss a single cabaret show by Christine Ebersole, because they are almost guaranteed to be exceptional. One of her finest – and the first one I saw – she built around the theme of her becoming an adoptive mother. The current one, titled “After the Ball,” finds her on the other end of that journey, dealing with becoming an empty nester, but also looking forward “to my approaching dotage” (a phrase she utters with comically bright cheer). And wouldn’t you know it, this act nearly matches the excellence of that other one long ago. Truly stellar cabaret – you shouldn’t miss it.

One of the things that most astonishes me about Ebersole is her exquisite taste when it comes to vocal interpretation. She flawlessly senses when to give a song a semi-operatic vibrato, when to belt it, and when to speak-sing. For example, she assays “What Did You Do to Your Face” a folk song by Susan Werner about plastic surgery, with a spoken passage here, a slightly syncopated moment of doubt there. But when she sings Al Jolson’s hit “Toot, Toot Tootsie! (Goo’bye)” she gives it a shake-the-rafters belt that would probably intimidate Jolson himself.

The act takes a decisively rueful, reflective turn when she ruminates on the ways her children were never 100% from her. Her take on Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” has real ache. But she also finds the humor in the situation, as when she comments on one child’s mathematical genius – “she didn’t get that from me,” she laughs, “the most she got from this cabaret singer was ‘snap on 2 and 4!’”

The final arc of the act finds Ebersole girding her loins to take on the future, most comically in Peggy Lee’s “Ready to Begin Again.” She takes inspiration from her own parents, and goes out on a high note. Very personal, and damned good. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Three Tall Women

I’ll call it: chances are very good that Dame Glenda Jackson is going to get a Tony nomination for her spectacular performance in Three Tall Women. In the current Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s 1991 play, Jackson plays a wealthy widow looking back on her life, first to a captive audience – a 56-year-old caretaker and a 26-year-old legal professional – then in an impressionistic dialogue with herself at those women’s ages.

Jackson returns to the Broadway stage after a 30-year absence, giving a masterful performance that is by turns imperious, hilarious and mesmerizing. Laurie Metcalf also rivets your attention with her drolly nuanced take on the middle-aged role. Alison Pill has much less to work with in the remaining role, but she acquits herself well in this impressive company, no small feat.

Joe Mantello’s direction is supremely tidy. He’s cast the play with talent that’s beyond incredible, and he just lets the actors go about their work while keeping them out of each other’s way. Honestly I think that its really easy for Pill and Metcalf to throw their focus to Jackson – they’re as excited to see her do her stuff as we are.

Mantello’s work dovetails beautifully with Miriam Buether’s elegant and functional set design. The set suggests taking steps in and out of “reality” in a marvelously understated way. The production is exquisite in every possible way: visually, intellectually, emotionally, artistically and on and on. Very highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Rocktopia

As corny as this might be, there is no resisting the visceral power of an amplified symphony orchestra blasting the most crowd-pleasing classic rock out there. The concert opens with Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” from the film 2001 A Space Odyssey and segues directly into The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” which is tantamount to saying: “Yes, this is exactly what you expected it would be.” Which is a whole lot of cliched yet still powerful classic rock fun.

Rocktopia takes a slightly surprising turn when it pairs Handel’s aria “Lascia Ch’io Pianga” – which also appeared earlier this season as the thrilling finale of Farinelli and the King – with Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Less obvious and genuinely clever. The evening as a whole leans toward the pleasantly accessible.

The only real failure is a too-gentle version of Led Zeppelin powerhouse “Kashmir” accompanied by images, not of the region of India that gives the song its name and sound, but of Egypt. Wha? The only right-on element in this song was the gorgeous vocal of Pat Monahan from the band Train.

Which bring me to the most rock-solid part of the show: the vocals. Guest star Monahan makes several appearances, mostly covering Zeppelin which is perfect for his voice. The most consistently magnificent – and versatile – singer is Chloe Lowery, who pairs fantastic range with a flair for dramatic builds. Tony Vincent, a personal favorite, brings his soaring tenor vocals and incandescent glam-rock fire to lots of Freddie Mercury material, but also, most unexpectedly and thrillingly to Muse’s “Uprising.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Lena Hall

This show is all about auditioning, which Lena Hall has been doing from a young age, often as part of a teen musical theatre troupe. The present-day Hall sings beautifully in a spectacular range of styles – vocally she brings to my mind Christine Ebersole, which is a big compliment. Hall performs with a glee and verve that’s gotten her pegged as the rock and roll singing actress. She doesn’t mind that, but does mind a bit that it keeps her from the full range of roles she could own.

This show, entitled “The Art of the Audition,” features songs from shows that Hall auditioned for (City of Angels, Oklahoma!, Legally Blonde) and shows from which she took her audition songs (A Chorus Line, Follies, Die Zauberflöte). That’s right, she goes from “Dance 10: Looks 3” to Mozart’s devilishly high Queen-of-the-Night aria “Der Hölle Rache.”

She’s too self-depricating about the Mozart aria; she, in her own words, “nails it.” And for everything she turns her hand to, be it rock, classical or traditional musical comedy, shows her to be an actor-singer who is equally excellent at acting and singing, which is rarer than you might think.

Her singing, whether load or soft, is never anything less than full-throated. And her rapport with music director Brian Nash is warm and engaging, a very entertaining side show by itself. When she’s singing, no matter the style, she is an unquestionable fierce ruling diva. Overall, the show was a genuine pleasure, and Hall an immensely engaging performer. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Jinkx Monsoon & Major Scales

For her new cabaret show at Joe’s Pub, entitled The Ginger Snapped, we find a manic Jinkx Monsoon being psychoanalyzed by her musical counterpart, pianist / composer / raconteur Major Scales. This show is their first to feature almost entirely new music, all from her new album of the same name.

Their first New York cabaret show, The Vaudevillians, was such a runaway success that it’s become a running joke in their shows that “I think the audience was expecting The Vaudevillians. Oops!” While good for a laugh, that self-deprecation isn’t necessary, since this show is equally accomplished, just in a very different way.

Monsoon and Scales are more entertaining and smart than the vast majority of the competition. The material from the album is heavily influenced by New Wave (heck the B-52’s Fred Schneider even guests on one track). Both Monsoon and Scales first appear in medical smocks that recall Tim Curry in Rocky Horror. Very shortly, though, Jinkx strips down to a black one-piece lace foundation garment, which she later covers with a silky black dressing gown trimmed with feathers and rhinestones. Simple yet fabulous.

The Ginger Snapped is light years more thoughtful, tuneful and original than your typical cabaret drag act, while rarely being less than acidly hilarious. Very funny but with genuine rage and love just below the surface.

For the Joe’s Pub calendar, click here.

To keep up with Jinkx, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Stories By Heart

I had a deeply personal reaction to Stories by Heart. It’s above all John Lithgow’s love letter to his father, and the love of storytelling that his father conveyed to him. About half of it is Lithgow talking about those issues, and the other half is Lithgow performing literary short stories that his father read him as a child. My parents were also great tellers of great stories, so I strongly identify; for me it was H. G. Wells and C. S. Lewis, for Lithgow, Ring Lardner and P. G. Wodehouse. Lithgow’s love for his father is palpable in this piece, and I found that particularly moving.

The Ring Lardner story “Haircut” throws a bit of a curve: it starts out as a tale of charming small town life which Lithgow himself freely admits “slowly turns into a gruesome tale of adultery, misogyny and murder.” P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By,” is pure literary comfort food in which the titular Fred, a loopy English Lord, has a madcap adventure that starts by simply trying to get out of the rain.

Lithgow is marvelously specific in the physicality he gives these short stories, realistically pantomiming an early 20th Century “two bit” shave-and-a-haircut in the Lardner. By the same token, he gives a ridiculously stylized personality to all of the crazy people (and parrots) we encounter in the Wodehouse.

This production is lively and vivacious, due in equal parts to Lithgow’s native theatrical intelligence and Daniel Sullivan’s canny direction. Stories by Heart is thoroughly sincere and sentimental, which I find very refreshing. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Bright Colors and Bold Patterns

The laughs come fast and furious in Bright Colors and Bold Patterns, writer / performer Drew Droege’s monologue that bristles against the mainstreaming of gays. The character Droege portrays, Gerry, is a flashy and colorful sort, arriving at a pool party ahead of the wedding of his old friend Josh to the more conservative Brennan (we never meet any of these characters, we just hear Gerry’s opinion of them).

The wedding invitation says, “Please refrain from wearing bright colors or bold patterns,” which really steams Gerry. The play’s strongest thematic point is that gay marriage should not turn the bright rainbow of gay culture into something a whole lot more beige. Both Gerry and Droege have a stand-up comedian’s sense of how to most gleefully go for the jugular, which provides much of the show’s humor. Michael Urie, currently starring in the marvelous Off-Broadway revival of Torch Song, directs here with an assured hand, keeping things crisp and tight.

Gerry is “a hot mess,” and “a lot” for sure, but again the play’s point is being “a lot” should be celebrated, and “a hot mess” at least forgiven. This though, is where I have a quibble with the play. Gerry is finally a bit too self-pitying and cruel to make that point stick. If we are going to make the argument that the world needs our bright and bold gay color, wouldn’t it be better to have someone who exhausts you with their exuberance rather than their neediness and bitchiness? More Rip Taylor and less Paul Lynde I guess I’m saying.

It’s still largely a fun gay old time, however. Drew Droege has a wonderful way with witty one-liners, both writing them and delivering them. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.